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California becomes fifth state to legalize human composting

The death services industry may be looking toward “natural organic reduction,” as five U.S. states have now rolled out legislation to sanction the burial practice.

(CN) — Human burial services in the U.S. are getting a green makeover as more states embrace human composting as an eco-friendly alternative to cremation and traditional casket burials. On Sunday, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 351 to establish regulatory practices for human composting in 2027, joining Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Vermont in legalizing the practice.

Human composting — also known as “natural organic reduction” — is much like it sounds, though the service is more complex and sterile than one might expect.

“Human composting is mimicking the process that’s happening all over the world on the forest floor, where you have sticks and leaves, your errant chipmunk and dead organic material all decomposing and creating topsoil,” said Katrina Spade, founder and CEO of Recompose, the first business to offer human compositing in the U.S. “The difference between that forest floor and human composting is that we lay a body into a vessel and we create a very highly controlled composting environment.”

Similar to a traditional burial, friends and family can attend a “laying-in” ceremony, where the deceased is placed into a steel vessel and buried in woodchips and other biodegradable materials. After 30 days, the remains transform into fertilized soil, which loved ones can donate to conservation lands or take home.

“It’s quite beautiful, actually,” Spade said, explaining that when a body is laid out before a ceremony, it’s covered with a simple linen cloth.

With California’s recent approval of human composting, Spade hopes the practice will become more common nationwide — and it likely will. Recompose aims to make composting more affordable than traditional burials and says the practice is a greener alternative.

A 2020 analysis by the Seattle Times found that cremation prices in Washington’s King County varied from $525 and $4,165. Meanwhile, burial prices ranged from $1,390 to $11,100 for the funeral. Anyone looking to “Recompose” in 2022, however, can expect to pay $7,000 flat to avoid the environmental tolls of carbon dioxide emissions and the use of embalming fluids and non-biodegradable coffins.

Even so, many people who are interested in human composting are not environmentalists, Spade said, “But [people] who really love the idea of [a] different way of considering the end of life.”

Since opening in December 2020, Recompose says it has composted 187 people and claims another 1,000 have signed up for its pre-arrangement program. Two other human composting businesses have opened in Washington since 2020 as well, suggesting a willingness to sate the growing demand for natural organic reduction services.

High demand in Washington could also point to the lack of such funeral offerings in states like Oregon, which legalized human composting in 2021, but has yet to see its first licensed facility.

“I think the fact that California has now legalized the process just means that it’s going to get out there even more,” Spade said, later adding: “The biggest challenge is getting facilities up and running where there are people that want what we have to offer.”

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